Beijing 1995: justly maligned? Or did it really work?

By Janis Alton

Some 30,000 women, including about 600 Canadians, change makers of all ages and from far-flung places recently converged on Beijing to attend the parallel meetings of the NGO Forum '95 (Aug. 31-Sept. 8) and the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women (Sept. 4-16.) The unprecedented numbers who came turned the conference grounds into a moving sea of color and diversity. But the international press, intent on exposing China's civil and political rights abuses and the frustrating logistical problems of the events, forgot to explore the substance of this, the largest gathering of women in history. We women, a few men, and 84 youth attached to official delegations, were determined to interact for critical improvements in the lives of women and girls.

The media's bias reflected the long-standing reluctance of most governments to take women's experiences, needs, and values seriously. Since 1975, the year of the First World Conference on Women, the triple goals of equality, development, and peace for the advancement of women have largely been set aside at all political levels. The consequences have led to a groundswell in the international women's movement. We are saying "enough is enough!"--that government and civil society must work together for gender justice.

The days of the NGO Forum offered an extravaganza of workshops and plenaries. It was daunting to choose and then to find event among the poorly mapped tents and buildings. Much could happen en route. An Irish NGO wrote, "You could meet a silent march with everyone dressed in black, prote sting violence against women. You could get embroiled in a demonstration against the occupation of Tibet. You could join the Latin American women protesting against the blockade of Cuba, 'Cuba Si, Bloqueo No!' It was wonderful." We were networking, sharing information, celebrating, and developing strategies for the mountains yet to be moved. Symbolic for me of the hope of the NGO Forum was a coastal Newfoundland woman, bereft by the collapse of the fishing industry, who "just to be heard," had ventured for the first time beyond her province, onto an airplane, and into the unknown of China.

There is much to do. The Platform for Action that the government delegates negotiated until the final day, addresses only 12 urgent obstacles to justice for women. But, if implemented, this document of 362 paragraphs "couldbe quite revolutionary," said Irene Freudenschuss-Reichl, chair of Working Group 11 of the U.N. Conference. To strengthen the hard-won words of this document, concrete commitments for implementation are included. Nevertheless, the state-by-state application may still be erratic. The distance yet to be traveled in improving the lives of women and girls will depend on continuing monitoring processes beyond Beijing, which must involve people from the grassroots to the highest levels of government. Stepped-up commitments can spring from U.N. conferences but the real work must be done by mobilizing civil society to hold governments accountable to women.

Janis Alton, Toronto, Voice of Women U.N. Representative.

"There was room for all ranges of emotion. Tears were shed for the Tibetan woman's struggle and the pain of those violated. Anger and dismay were shouted for the nuclear testing in the South Pacific. Laughter and song rang out in dances and voice workshops. Prayers were uttered in yoga and meditation circles. The computer centre hummed with the excitement of women learning how to e-mail, to telnet, to word process. The Once and Future Pavilion was a site of economic and development circles. One could examine intellectual property rights, cooking techniques, safe abortion methods, conflict resolution, and the threat of nuclear war."

Konia Trouton, M.D. Calgary, President, Physicians for Global Survival.

"Violence has not been curbed by the U.N. focus on women over the past 20 years. It has not been curbed by the creation of the World Court or the Human Rights Tribunal, the U.N. Security Council, or any of the treaties which are quoted to mark male "progress" in globalization of the world community. Women told stories of violence in the home, violence from physicians and health care providers, violence in business circles and in war. It is not even exclusively the "enemy" that carries out violence against women but even her spouse and Peacekeeping Forces! Unless physical, financial, and psychological warfare is eliminated, sustainable development of human culture is impossible. Warfare against other humans, against women and children and against the living biosphere which supports human life has created a precarious situation in which survival itself is at stake. Culture and development cannot flourish in a climate of coercion."

Rosalie Bertell, PhD, GNSH, International Institute of Concern for Public Health.

"In the workshops, we encountered women who have endured extreme privation and have emerged stronger than before. Maria Kirbassova of Russia is a founder of 'Mothers of Soldiers' initiated six years ago to oppose violence, militarism, and violations of human rights in her country. Early this year, she and other mothers of soldiers appropriated some buses and went to the battle area in Chechnya. 'We got in the way of the soldiers.' (We were shown a videotape of this dangerous mission.) Various mothers found their own sons. Some found only the bodies of their soldiers. They got control of an armored vehicle and rescued 13 officers and men. She asked us to join a women's conference for peace to be held in Germany in March, 1996, sponsored by the International Peace Bureau. Mrs. Kirbassova will be awarded the Bureau's Sean McBride Peace Prize."

Eryl Court, U.N. Envoy for the Unitarian Church.

"The global village constructed by the women who came was uplifting and strong. Music and song lifted our soggy spirits, the stories moved us sometimes to tears. The colorful national dress dazzled us, especially the strong dignified women from African countries."

Macha Mackay, Psychologist, Acadia University.

"What was different from Nairobi (the site of the Third World Conference on women) was the visibility of the need for peace. Women of Africa in particular, who have known decades of violence and military dictatorship are saying 'Stop the arms exports.' A physician from Mali, head of the Mali Women's Peace Organization, participated in Voice of Women's Don't Give Us Military Solutions workshop and connected with Konia Trouton for future work.

"A touching moment occurred when our roommate from Cameroun told us that being able to get to know us has completely changed her view of white women."

Dorothy Goldin Rosenberg, Toronto activist/educator.

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1995

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1995, page 12. Some rights reserved.

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